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updated 7/21/2009 3:19:52 PM ET 2009-07-21T19:19:52

As long as seven years ago, the federal National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration recommended that drivers not use cell phones, even with hands-free equipment, while on the road except in emergencies. But that recommendation was never made public until today.

The proposals from the agency in 2002 and 2003 were only made public Tuesday by The Center for Auto Safety and Public Citizen, two public interest groups that filed a lawsuit to obtain the documents under the Freedom of Information Act.

"We recommend that drivers not use these devices when driving, except in an emergency," the NHTSA said in a draft cell phone policy. "Moreover, we are convinced that legislation forbidding the use of handheld cell phones while driving may not be effective in improving highway safety since it will not address the problem. In fact, such legislation may erroneously imply that hands-free phones are safe to use while driving."

The recommendation was never made public, in part because of concern by administrators that public officials, including members of Congress, would be angry, thinking that the agency had "crossed the line into lobbying," The New York Times reported Tuesday.

At the time the reports were done, there were more than 170 million cell phone subscribers in the United States, "more than half of the U.S. population," the agency said. There now are more than 270 million subscribers, and wireless penetration totaling 87 percent of the population, according to CTIA-The Wireless Association, the cell phone industry trade group.

Below are excerpts from the findings of the NHTSA in its cell phone-and-driving-related reports, all of which were labeled as "draft" and never moved forward:

  • From the agency's proposed cell phone policy: "Driver distraction contributes to about 25 percent of all police-reported traffic crashes. Though all distractions are a concern, we have seen the growth of a particular distraction, namely cell phone use while driving. While the precise impact cannot be quantified, we nevertheless have concluded that the use of cell phones while driving has contributed to an increasing number of crashes, injuries and fatalities."
  • Research has shown there is "little, if any, difference between the use of hand-held and hands-free phones in contributing to the risk of a crash while driving distracted. Hands-free or hand-held, we have found that the cognitive distraction is significant enough to degrade a driver's performance."
  • "We recommend that drivers not uses these devices when driving, except in an emergency. Moreover, we are convinced that legislation forbidding the use of handheld cell phones while driving may not be effective in improving highway safety since it will not address the problem. In fact, such legislation may erroneously imply that hands-free phones are safe to use while driving."
  • NHTSA said in its "distraction statement draft," that while "all distractions can be dangerous, wireless communication devices are a (sic) particularly unique and troublesome since they involve cognitive distraction ... the reality is, driver performance can be compromised regardless of whether the device is hand-held or hands-free. Consequently, we recommend that drivers not use a cell phone while driving."
  • In a draft letter by then-Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta to be sent to state governors, Mineta wrote that "while the precise impact" of cell phone use while driving "cannot be quantified, we nevertheless have concluded that the use of cell phones while driving has contributed to an increasing number of crashes, injuries and fatalities."
  • "A significant body of research worldwide indicates that both hand-held and hands-free cell phones increase the risk of a crash," he wrote. "Indeed, research has demonstrated that there is little, if any difference between the use of hand-held and hands-free phones in contributing to the risk of driving while distracted. In either operational mode, we have found that the cognitive distraction is significant enough to degrade a driver's performance."
  • "Your state should also consider the vulnerability of novice drivers as it relates to distractions, including cell phone use," Mineta wrote. "Countermeasures, including education and restrictions on cell phone use by novice drivers may be an appropriate way to address the problem." Mineta also referenced NHTSA's "comprehensive summary of available research on the subject," from dozens of studies, for state officials to review.
  • In its recommendations, NHTSA said it wanted to do a "statistically meaningful" study of "perhaps 10,000 or more" volunteer drivers across the nation for over a period of "at least one year." Such a study would "ultimately lead to a more accurate estimate of the magnitude of the problem," the agency said.
  • In terms of legislation, NHTSA said such decisions are "a state or local issue and should be based on the determination by authorities that a sufficient problem exists in their jurisdiction to warrant action." However, the agency noted, "in view of the greater risks associated with new or novice drivers it is also recommended that consideration be given to specifically prohibiting these drivers from using cell phones while driving, perhaps as a part of graduated licensing programs or through some period of time based on driving experience."
  • In making its case for a cell phone ban while driving, NHTSA said that "at least 42 countries restrict or prohibit use of cell phones and other wireless technology in motor vehicles, and several more are considering legislation."

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